China: The Rise of the People’s Republic


By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

While the Chinese Communists had won the civil war, the civil peace was still missing in China. The economy had suffered for decades, and Mao Zedong was forced to seek foreign assistance. Read to know whom he turned to for help, and why.

The entrance to the Palace Museum in Beijing with Mao Zedong's photo on the wall.
Mao’s brilliance, Chiang’s hubris, and Japan’s savage occupation contributed towards Communist victory. (Image: V_E/Shutterstock)

Causes of Communist Party’s Triumph

For decades after the Communist Party’s triumph of 1949, historians debated the root causes of their success.

Was it mainly due to Mao Zedong’s brilliant military thinking and his keen awareness of the importance of mobilizing peasant support? Or was it primarily the result of Chiang K’ai-shek’s monumental ego, his inability to limit corruption among his subordinates, and his insensitivity to the concerns of the ordinary Chinese?

Or perhaps the key factor was the horrendous devastation caused by Japan’s brutal occupation.

A cataclysm of such magnitude would have sorely tested the governing capacity of any regime, let alone a brand new, untested Nationalist regime that was already facing a serious domestic insurgency.

Any full and complete accounting of the Communist victory and the Guomindang’s defeat must involve some combination of these three factors: Mao’s brilliance, Chiang’s hubris, and Japan’s savage occupation. All played a part.

Learn more about the birth of Chinese communism.

Birth of the People’s Republic

A few days before Mao Zedong proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic, he addressed a political meeting in Beijing. In his speech, Mao famously claimed that “the Chinese people … have stood up.” (Zhongguo renmin xianzai zhanqilai le.)

However, Mao only spoke a half-truth.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Chinese Communist Party and Stalin

The upstart Chinese Communist Party had come from nowhere, out of the wilderness, to miraculously defeat the much larger, U.S.-supplied forces of Chiang K’ai-shek. And they had done it by stressing ingenuity, improvisation, and self-reliance, making use of whatever materials they had at hand, while receiving precious little aid, comfort, or assistance from the Soviet Union.

The building of the Communist Party of China in Beijing.
The Chinese Communist Party had not received much aid, comfort, or assistance from the Soviet Union. (Image: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock)

Indeed, Stalin had virtually written off the Chinese Communists’ prospects for seizing power.

In 1945, for example, following Japan’s defeat, the Soviet dictator urged Mao to form a coalition government with Chiang K’ai-shek. Stalin simply didn’t believe that Mao could defeat the Generalissimo.

Four years later, when the Communists emerged victorious from the civil war, Stalin was forced to engage in a rare display of contrition, apologizing for his lack of confidence in his Chinese comrades.

Though the Chinese Communists won the civil war, they had not yet secured the civil peace.

Chinese Economy after Civil  War

Devastated by more than three decades of revolution, foreign invasion, and civil war, the Chinese economy was in shambles. With at least 30 million more mouths to feed than in 1937, total farm output in 1949 remained well below its pre-war peak levels.

As for China’s cities, four years of Nationalist mismanagement and corruption had robbed them of their economic dynamism, leaving them awash in demobilized Guomindang soldiers, displaced government functionaries, and puppet collaborators—many of whom sought to conceal their shadowy pasts.

Finally, in the immediate post-liberation confusion of 1949, a plurality of political groups and ideologies competed for influence in the intellectual marketplace.

As for the Chinese Communists themselves, having operated in the primitive ‘mud and shit’ of the rural hinterland for more than twenty years, they knew precious little about how to organize and run an urban economy.

Indeed, notwithstanding Mao’s 1949 boast, it would be several more decades, marked intermittently by Herculean national achievements and horrific national disasters, for the Chinese people to truly ‘stand up’.

In a remarkable speech delivered at the end of June 1949, titled ‘On People’s Democratic Dictatorship’, Mao Zedong acknowledged the difficult, uncharted road that lay ahead.

“Soon,” he said, “we shall put aside some of the things we know well and be compelled to do things we don’t know well.”

Learn more about the 1931 invasion of Manchuria.

Need for Foreign Assistance

Statue of Stalin.
Mao swallowed his pride and sought help from Stalin to rebuild China’s economy. (Image: Magdalena Paluchowska/Shutterstock)

Desperately in need of foreign assistance to rebuild China’s shattered economy and consolidate its new government, Mao swallowed his pride and bowed long and deep in the direction of the Soviet Union and its ‘wise leader’, Comrade Stalin.

It must have been galling for the chairman, for Stalin had essentially written off Mao and his rag-tag guerrilla army throughout the ’30s and ’40s.

Nevertheless, with the Cold War blooming in earnest, Mao was not about to bite the only hand that had both the will and the capacity to feed him.

As far as looking to the West for inspiration or aid was concerned, that was a different matter altogether. Emulating the West had been tried before, more than a half-century earlier, and had been found seriously wanting.

As Western imperialism continued to batter away at China’s defences, eroding Chinese sovereignty and trampling on Chinese pride, admiration turned to anger, and envy turned to resentment.

As Mao put it in his speech:

Imperialist aggression shattered the fond dreams of the Chinese about learning from the West. It was very odd—why were the teachers always committing aggression against their pupil? … [Then] the Russians made the October Revolution and created the world’s first socialist state … Then, and only then, did the Chinese enter an entirely new era in their thinking … and the face of China began to change.

Learn more about the confrontations between Nationalist and Communist forces.

China’s Ideological Orientation

If any doubts remained about China’s future ideological orientation, Mao quickly dispelled them.

Summing up the history of the Chinese Revolution, he said: “Forty years of experience have taught us [that] … all Chinese without exception must lean either to the side of imperialism or to the side of socialism. Sitting on the fence will not do; nor is there a third road.”

With this important statement, Mao set China’s international compass to point due north.

Henceforth, China would align itself with the socialist camp, led by the USSR, and would eschew collaboration with the imperialist camp headed by the United States.

Common Questions about the Rise of the People’s Republic in China

Q: Which three factors contributed to the Communist victory and the Guomindang’s defeat?

The Communist victory and the Guomindang’s defeat were due to the combination of following three factors: Mao’s brilliance, Chiang’s hubris, and Japan’s savage occupation.

Q: Why was the Chinese economy in shambles?

The Chinese economy was in shambles as it had been devastated by more than three decades of revolution, foreign invasion, and civil war.

Q: Why did Mao Zedong not look to West for aid?

Mao Zedong did not turn to the West for aid as the Western imperialism had continued to batter away at China’s defences, eroding Chinese sovereignty and trampling on Chinese pride. This had led to admiration turning to anger, and envy turning to resentment.

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